A notable variation on a notable theme - Bristol Green glassware, a Regency and Victorian extravagance

So – Bristol Blue glass – nice and straightforward that was; a pair of groundbreaking porcelain innovators, in the right place at the right time with the right resources at their disposal and in the inclination to make the most of out what was, in essence, a stroke of good fortune. But what about the green glass, which also bears the name Bristol – how did this particular commodity come about and become equally feted ?

As with blue colouration, green pigments had been used to tint glassware, ceramics and many other products from antiquity. Egyptian decorative tinctures and dyes, Roman mosaic tiles and enamels, Dark Age pottery – all given a verdant hue by the use of naturally occurring oxides of elements such as iron and copper.

So abundant and relatively accessible were the sources of these pigments that they would find their way unintentionally in to glass products. Bristol’s 17th century manufactories, producing bottle and window glass would – as was the case across the country – turn out what was commonly known as green glass, which was coloured by residual trace metals in the sand from which it was made. This glass was a “dirty” pale green or light brown, and was used for utilitarian applications and was made in volume by glasshouses under the auspices of Powell & Ricketts Co . Of course, once flint glass with its greater clarity had been developed in the late 1600’s, the new material swiftly became a more popular medium, although it wasn’t until the likes of Champion and Cookworthy demonstrated their mastery of deliberately tinted cobalt blue glass that the search for other purposefully coloured material was pursued in earnest.

It would be too easy to assign the development and popularisation of Bristol Green to this same pair of fabricators, but there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this was the case. Cookworthy would undoubtedly have been aware of at least the basic theories behind producing green glass, as he would have come across it in his work on a daily basis; as a chemist and apothecary he would have used any number of glass vessels – retorts, test tubes, beakers, phials and vials – and the convention for these items at the time was for them to have been imported from Germany (or to a lesser extent made locally by William Dunbar’s at Chepstow) where they were made of a relatively pale green glass. The Quaker pharmacist would also know that oxide of chromium was the base for green colouration used in his own nascent porcelain business, but that this was a costly material to obtain, and available in only limited quantities. French alchemist, Monsieur Fontanieu, worked with distillates of copper oxide (known as “crystals of verdigris”) and his results were good enough to produce rich, deep green glass that “approximated artificial emeralds”, but not of a volume anything like substantial enough to be of any commercial value.

By the time that Cookworthy died in 1780, it seems that there had been some experimentation with the use of chromium oxides, but they were still not widely available and it was not until the turn of the century that definitive, properly-coloured green glass production is documented. This manufacturing took place at the Nailsea glassworks of John Lucas, son of a Bristol cooper, which had been set up in 1788 and primarily produced window and bottle glass in its early years. The works flourished, and Lucas was able to attract capable craftsmen who were encouraged to “do their own thing” once standard production quotas had been fulfilled and commissions completed for the week, and it seems likely that this is sort of environment where the first “Bristol Green” wares may have seen the light of day. The growth of the glassworks was commensurate with both the discovery in Eastern Europe of considerable deposits of crocoite ore (from which oxides of chromium can be readily extracted) and the period to which early green glassware can be first be dated and then became popular. It’s circumstantial evidence, certainly, but in the absence of any other compelling depositions or declarations, it is certainly worthy of consideration.

Suffice to say that once the production process had been streamlined to a point where it became financially viable to pursue, a steady stream of Bristol Green glassware found its way on to the market. Its usage gives the impression of being somewhat less aesthetic and ornamental in form that its blue counterpart, a higher proportion of straightforward glasses and decanters and fewer gilded extravagances are to be found, which may have been down to the relative scarcity of the colourant compared to Cookworthy’s stockpile of Saxon smalt. Whatever the reason, though, it’s more of a Regency and early Victorian commodity than the slightly earlier Bristol Blue wares, but pieces can be no less striking regardless.

As ever, follow the link below to our index page for all currently listed Bristol Green items, and if you do have any more information about its development, please do share it with us…

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